The University of Alberta decided to clear up misconceptions that the bell curve was a compulsory form of grading last week.
A General Faculties Council (GFC) meeting on May 28 amended the wording in the university’s Grading and Assessment Policy, clearing up confusing lines that previously led to a general belief that the curve was a mandatory form of grading, especially in Science and Engineering classes.
The bell curve continues to remain available to professors, giving them freedom to evaluate students as they see fit — as long as they adhere to the Assessment and Grading policy as well as faculty or departmental grading policies.
“The new policy allows a little more flexibility for each faculty or department. I suspect there will be a lot more diversity in how grades are determined across campus,” said Students’ Union Vice-President (Academic) Dustin Chelen.
However, Chelen added that the SU has been concerned that faculty-specific grading procedures have not always been clearly identified for students.
“Departments could have had their own grading curve without ever telling (their) students, and students would have no understanding where their grades were coming from at the end of the term,” Chelen said.
“My hope, though, is that with the explicit elimination of the curve (from university policy), the instructors will understand that it is valuable and necessary to communicate to students how grades are determined.”
He added that there has been a lack of communication between the university and the SU regarding the recent changes. The future of the curve has been in debate since 2009, but Chelen said that the SU has not been consulted regarding grading policy changes and amendments in almost a year.
“In April at an Academic Standards meeting there was a brand new policy presented surrounding assessment and grading, the largest part including the curve,” Chelen said.
“The Students’ Union hadn’t seen the policy between May 2011 and April 2012 so we certainly had some major concerns with it.”
This lapse in communication resulted from a number of changes within the Office of the Provost, where the project was passed to the Vice-Provost’s office. Vice-Provost (Academic Programs and Instruction) Bill Connor and his team were made responsible for directing the policy.
Prior to this, two years were spent by Professor Bob Luth, who at the time served as the Provost’s Fellow, doing widespread consultation across campus with student focus groups to generate a report on assessment and grading, although he did not have a direct part in the new wording of the policy.
Although the SU was not directly consulted on the changes to the policy, the GFC also has substantial student membership every year, as well as two members of the SU executive team.
Senior Associate Dean (Student Services) for the Faculty of Science, Brenda Leskiw, was one of the key presenters of the policy changes. Leskiw said the policy is the first step to invite faculties from across campus into a conversation about future grading assessment policies and procedures.
“What we now need to do as an institution is begin those conversations — at the department and faculty level, those discussions need to happen,” Leskiw said.
“What’s really critical is that there are lots of different ways (to evaluate grades), but you have to communicate that clearly with your students.”
Leskiw added that larger classes pose challenges for professors, who cannot get to know their students well enough to assess them properly. In the past, the bell curve has been used to protect students from unfair and poorly-written exams.
“We have to work on it at both ends and make sure that we don’t get grade inflation, but (also) be fair if the evaluation tool doesn’t work as well as we hoped,” she said on using the curve as a grading method.
The next steps have not yet been clearly outlined for what will happen to students’ grades in the future, leaving the curve and the way students are assessed still up for debate.
“What I want to see at the end of the day is for students to know where their grades come from — it shouldn’t be a mysterious process,” said Chelen.
“I think we have work to do, making sure that course outcomes are clearly communicated and lined up with how students are assessed.”
The changes to the grading policy will be implemented in the fall semester across all faculties and departments on campus.
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